One of the cardinal rules of Italian cooking: always use the best ingredients available to you. Pasta is no different. It is especially important since pasta really brings together the whole dish. There are many, many brands of dried pasta, or pasta secco, on the market. Like most people I used to think they were all the same. I would buy Barilla or De Ceicco at the supermarket and that would be it. Then I tasted the difference between those brands and true Italian artisan pasta or Pasta Artigianale,
Most of this pasta you will see in stores in the US comes from the famous town of Gragnano which sits in between Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Gragnano boasts an over 200 year old tradition of pasta making. There are many special steps and details that have to be followed in order to produce pasta with superior taste and texture. The center of town is even said to be laid out so that the main street captures the salty, cool breeze off the the Mederterainian creating an ideal scenario for pasta drying. All of these seemingly small details add up and in the end a superior product, both from a taste and texture standpoint, is created.
There are two important differences in the process vs mass produced dry pasta: the pasta is extruded through bronze dies instead of through industrial Teflon, giving it a rough-textured surface to which sauce clings rather than slipping off, and the pasta is dried slowly at low temperatures so that it retains more of the nutty flavor and aroma of durum wheat.
Pasta from Gragano has become more widely available over the past few years. In New York City, you can find it in specialty shops as well as some Supermarkets. Some of my favorite brands can be found at Eataly, Buon Italia or Agata e Valentina. Look for Afetlra, Di Martino and Garofalo. Also keep in mind, many shapes come in larger packages, 500g or 1.2 lbs. Most mass produced pasta comes in 1 lb portions. Either way you will pay more for the small batch pasta, but you will not be disappointed. Every time we have guests, we serve this special pasta, sometimes just with a very simple Carbonara or Aglio e Olio, and we get "recipe" requests every time.